Hundreds rally to protest Ratner plan

The Brooklyn Paper
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Chanting “No eminent domain for personal gain,” hundreds of protesters gathered in Prospect Heights Sunday, within three-point range of the site planned for a professional basketball arena that has been mightily opposed since it was proposed by developer Bruce Ratner last year.

The rousing, sometimes teary “Rally at the Railyards,” drew more than 500 people to a stretch of Pacific Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues which, under current plans, would be de-mapped and resurfaced as roughly center court for the New Jersey Nets, the NBA team that Ratner purchased in January.

Community leaders and elected officials who oppose the plan to build an arena, office towers and high-rise apartment buildings along a swath of the neighborhood extending east from the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues, banded together Sunday afternoon to voice their disapproval.

The $2.5 billion Atlantic Yards development relies on the state’s condemnation of private property that would force the relocation of 350 residents and 250 employees at 40 businesses. The rest of the development would be built over Long Island Rail Road storage yards at the north end of the site.

Among some 15 speakers who railed against the project, Councilwoman Letitia James, clearly pleased with the turnout, incited the crowd’s vigor with a plea that veered toward call-and-response.

In response to her shouts of “Where we from?” James’ supporters chortled “Brooklyn.” When she yelled “No justice, no peace, whose streets?” the crowd dutifully echoed her rallying cry.

“We stand in your path, Mr. Ratner,” said James, who has been a vocal opponent of the plan since its conception. “And when you said there were only a few voices, you were clearly wrong.”

Aside from elected officials, including state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery and Rep. Major Owens, an eclectic group of musicians echoed the call for opposition with lyrics tailor-made to the rally.

The Jaybirds, a Prospect Heights-based three-piece featuring guitar, mandolin and accordion, performed “Don’t Tear Us Down.” Led by Sam Zygmuntowicz, the group breezed through its anti-arena tune, earning the prolonged applause of a crowd that came and went as the afternoon turned brisk.

“Maybe some day you’ll be passin’ by and see the high towers fill the sky,” sang Zygmuntowicz, a violinmaker on Dean Street who would be relocated by the plan. “Would anyone remember that the big sports dome was built on the spot that we call our home?”

Many attending the rally were tenants, homeowners and merchants who said their buildings would be condemned under the arena proposal.

The gathering moved Israel Amador, who said that he has lived in a building on Dean Street for 35 years. As he mouthed rallying cries by Norman Siegel, the former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union who is representing Prospect Heights residents threatened with eviction in a planned lawsuit, Amador admitted that the rally was a first for him.

“I’ve never seen something like this before,” he said while standing next to a friend. “This is something, I think, that’s kind of special.”

Speaking first, the Rev. David Dyson, of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, told the crowd that upon learning of Ratner’s plans he looked up a definition of eminent domain. He remarked that the provision of law whereby the government can take private property for the public good, is normally used to make space for such public facilities as hospitals, schools, parks and roadways, not private endeavors.

“They didn’t say nothin’ about a basketball arena,” said Dyson, a self-proclaimed activist since 1972 who has worked alongside Cesar Chavez, the California migrant workers organizer. “Seems to me that this is not so much eminent domain as it is imperial domain.”

Although Ratner didn’t attend the rally, a spokeswoman at the event on Sunday passed out a statement to reporters that promised continued community involvement as the plan proceeds. In the statement, Bruce Bender, executive vice president of Ratner’s Forest City Ratner Co., said that the development would create 25,000 jobs, of which 15,000 would be temporary construction jobs. He also stated that 4,500 units of mixed-income housing would be created.

“We understand that there are concerns in parts of the community and it has always been one of our guiding principles to listen to and learn from the community and work towards minimizing the impact this project may have,” said Bender in the statement, which was handed out just before the rally began.

Asked for a comment on the event itself, a Ratner spokeswoman, Beth Davidson, declined, saying, “We have no further comment on the rally.”

Despite an energetic crowd, which included children and at least a dozen anti-development dogs, some clad in sweaters scrawled with protest slogans, the rally was intermittently clouded with sadness.

Simon Liu, the owner of a canvas-stretching business on Dean Street, sang an operatic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” before breaking down in tears before the crowd. He had warned onlookers that he might cry and when he did, several friends, including Patti Hagan, president of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, hugged him as he descended the stage.

Twenty minutes later, Hagan fought back tears as she read an essay written by 10-year-old Nestor Roman, whose relatives would be displaced under the arena plan.

“Roots will be torn from the ground,” she read from Roman’s essay, “not giving future children the opportunity to know some great history of a special part of Brooklyn.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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